Arnold Bennett’s 1911 comic novel The Card, telling the story of the rise of Edward Henry “Denry” Machin from humble office boy to successful entrepreneur and beloved youngest Mayor in the history of Bursley, was adapted for the stage by Deborah McAndrew for Claybody Theatre and was very well received during its inaugural run at Fenton Town Hall in 2022. I wanted to go and see it then, but couldn’t, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see it at the New Vic.
The show begins with the unveiling of a statue of Denry in St. Luke’s Square, Bursley, 120 years on from his appointment as Mayor, the pomp and ceremony of this occasion being underlined by the presence of the Bursley Brass Band (the Acceler8 Band under the direction of Jef Sparkes) who feature prominently throughout the production. The drape comes off to reveal Denry (local lad and New Vic regular Gareth Cassidy) and as the cast take turns to narrate the story – essential as eighteen years of Denry’s life are packed into little over two hours – we are whisked back in time to the office of Mr. Duncalf (Howard Chadwick) where Denry is working as a rent collector.
A chance encounter with the Countess of Chell (Molly Roberts) gives Denry the idea of sneaking his name – and a few others whom he hopes will prove useful to him – onto the invitation list to the Countess’s Ball, where for a bet he asks the Countess to dance, winning himself £5. The Ball is beautifully choreographed by Beverley Norris-Edmunds and indeed the performance is peppered with dance throughout.
When Duncalf fires him, Denry sets up on his own using the £5 he won and takes a disgruntled client of Duncalf’s with him. This is the real start of Denry’s meteoric rise and, although the ethics of some of his tactics are questionable, his quirky lovability and basically good nature win us over.
Denry becomes engaged to his former dance instructor Ruth (Jessica Dyas) after he saves her life, leaping aboard a runaway pantechnicon, ending up trapped inside it with her in the canal. The slow-motion depiction of how this happens is one of the stand-out scenes of the whole piece, a simply wonderful few minutes of theatre. On holiday in Llandudno, chaperoned according to the proprieties of the time by sweet Nellie (Jenny Murphy), Ruth’s big-spending habits alarm Denry who has to find a way of breaking off the engagement but make it look like it was Ruth’s idea. This done, Denry buys an old lifeboat and makes a fortune taking tourists on trips to see a shipwreck by the Little Orme.
Back in the Potteries, we follow Denry on several more adventures, but only really get to his heart when we meet his elderly Mother (Howard Chadwick) whom he introduces to us as the most important woman in his life. The bearded Chadwick’s brilliant performance as the feisty, curmudgeonly Mrs. Machin put me in mind of Steve Pemberton as Tubbs in “The League Of Gentlemen”, with an underlying pathos behind the humour. Mrs. Machin hasn’t had life easy: widowed young, she brought up her son alone in a cold, rundown cottage, but it takes a special wheeze on Denry’s part, aided and abetted by Nellie, to get her to accept the idea of moving to nicer surroundings.
Given that the play starts with the unveiling of Denry’s statue it is hardly a surprise when he becomes Mayor but we are universally delighted for him when he does. The final objection to Denry’s elevation comes from a rival councillor who asks, “what great cause is he identified with?”
“He is identified”, comes the response, “with the great cause of cheering us up”.
Cue celebratory music and dancing, and a hearty ovation from a North Staffordshire audience who have most definitely been cheered up.
This is feelgood theatre at its best and it has everything: a great story, beautifully told with superb music, dance and even a display of footballing skill from Eddie Westbury as Callear (“the greatest centre forward in England”). Gareth Cassidy’s performance is first rate throughout as is the support he receives from the rest of the cast, the Claybody Community Company and the Acceler8 band.
The Card is
definitely a must-see. I had high expectations of it beforehand and they were
surpassed by some distance.
Reviewer - Ian Simpson
on - 23.5.23